Preserving the Prairie, a Plot at a Time

Folks in Illinois are making strides to restore and preserve the precious prairie landscape that gives the state its nickname. In the midst of larger endeavors that include relocation of buffalo back to the state for the first time in two centuries, the local land conservancy for west-central Illinois plays a small but important role in protecting nature’s finest.


back – in small numbers, but back nonetheless.

And scientists are working on ways to integrate the natural prairie landscape with row-crop agriculture.

Developments like these make it an exciting time to be working on conservation. They offer the hope that Illinois could someday again live up to its name as the Prairie State.

In my back yard, it is exciting to be a teeny-tiny part of the land conservation and preservation movement as chair of the directors of the Prairie Land Conservancy (PLC), a division of Prairie Hills Resource Conservation and Development (PHRC&D). The board is a dedicated group of volunteers who seek to make life better in this part of the world. Our organization is the local land conservancy for west-central Illinois.

In December, the Prairie Land Conservancy acquired 535 acres of land near the Illinois River in Banner, Fulton County, from the Central Utility Coal Company for $1.7 million. Restoration will cost about $200,000 more.

“The land sale culminated nearly eight months of grant applications and negotiations to acquire this unique Illinois River flood plain,” said David King, executive director. “Nearly 220 acres of farm land will be restored to wetland habitat of shallow wetlands, wet prairies and bottom land hardwood trees.”

The remainder of the tract may remain in agriculture for the next five years unless it can be put into either the Conservation Reserve Program or the Wetland Reserve Program. It will be managed to help support the restoration of natural floodplain land closer to the river, according to King.

Emiquon Preserve, Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, and Dickson Mounds State Museum. The clustering of preserved lands is essential to undoing the fragmentation of natural habitat that has disrupted the river and wildlife and resulted in endangered species. The Prairie Land project will help restore additional acreage that is critical to life in and along the river.

Prairie Land Conservancy is a relatively new organization with a growing role in preserving natural areas and promoting sustainable agriculture. The idea for the land conservancy emerged in 2006 as a brainchild of the Prairie Hills Resource Conservation and Development board, which saw the need to preserve land in West Central Illinois. Prairie Land Conservancy operates in 10 counties between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, prime agricultural lands that are interspersed with natural gems that are critical habitats for cleaner water and wildlife.

In 2007, Prairie Land received a planning grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation. In 2008, it received its first gift, outright ownership of about 200 acres—Stony Hills Nature Preserve—near the banks of the Mississippi River in Hancock County, Illinois. Since then, Prairie Land Conservancy has accepted gifts of conservation easements on some smaller parcels, a bequest from a landowner, and a transfer of a smaller tract of land in Macomb along the La Moine River from the Audubon Society. The organization is now responsible for preservation of about 900 acres of land in three counties.  

Land Trust Alliance, there are 30 local land trusts in Illinois. In 2010, there were 1,699 state and local trusts across the country, as well as 24 national organizations. They were responsible for protecting 47 million acres of land, a number that keeps growing. In our region, prairie preservation and restoration is creating a legacy, recovering much that has been lost. It is gratifying to see the results.

Say the word “prairie,” and you somehow feel better. It comes from the French, and it means meadow or grassy field for pasturing cattle. You first walk through a prairie, large or small, is an unforgettably sensuous experience that you want repeated over and over again. Americans, especially Heartland Americans, are used to seeing and appreciating plants in ordered systems, long straight rows of corn or soybeans…. But a prairie doesn’t exist in that ordered style. Instead, it is a crazy quilt of plants with no recognized pattern although it has a sort of fractured order—there is the repetitive occurrence of the tall grasses serving as a brace for the congregations of wildflowers that pop up or lounge between the tall clumps of grass. 

Tony Fitzpatrick, Signals from the Heartland
New York: Walker and Company, 1993, p. 200-201

It has been nearly a generation since Tony Fitzpatrick wrote Signals from the Heartland, an inspiring tribute to the work of environmentalists in the heartland states of Missouri and Illinois.

Fortunately, the signals from the heartland remain loud and clear today as a newer generation of Midwesterners continues the work of environmental protection and restoration of critical areas in our beautiful landscape.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.